Interview: Dread Scott

DREAD SCOTT / "Make revolutionary art to propel history forward ... confront the world as it is and radically dream about how it could be different."

All photos via Dread Scott

by Kameelah Janan Rasheed
Originally published at Liberator Magazine

Dread Scott, the Brooklyn-based and Chicago-bred multidisciplinary artist is best known for his 1989 installation piece, What is the Proper Way to Display the American Flag?

As July 4th quickly approaches, patriotic accessories will make their one-day debut and Chinese-made American flags will be gingerly hung in windowsills. Cars will be loaded with Independence Day sale goodies -- scented lotions and iPods, bar-b-qued meats will adorn soggy Dixie paper plates, and illegal backyard firework shows will likely result in a few charred finger tips. 

All the while, artist Dread Scott will probably be finding new ways to as he says, "make revolutionary art to propel history forward." A clear head nod to Mao's 1942 
Talks at the Yenan Forum, Scott's politics are intimately reflected in his art -- art designed to serve the masses and move us into a new era free of exploitation. Art more concerned with an inevitable revolution of sorts than praise from the art market and its ever fickle tastes.

Known as Scott Tyler and a student at the Chicago Institute of Art, the 24-year-old mounted his installation, an excerpt from a larger body of work entitled American Newspeek ... Please Feel Free? as part of a minority student exhibition. The installation includes a photo montage of South Korean students burning U.S. flags holding signs saying ‘Yankee go home son of bitch' and flag-draped coffins. The audience was invited to write responses to the question “What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?” and as they did so, they stood on a 3" x 5" American flag.

February 1989 proved to be a month that catapulted Scott into the national limelight.

Death threats. Bomb scares. Vietnam veterans protest. Effigies stomped upon. Pictures targeted on dartboards.

George H.W. Bush, the soon to be Commander and Chief of the Gulf War told a 
Chicago Tribune reporter that the installation was "disgraceful." "If George Bush feels threatened by me, good" retorted Scott in a June 1989 SPIN interview.

Protesters eventually provoked the Chicago's City Council to pass a local ordinance banning flag desecration. Not surprisingly, the ACLU got involved citing violation of first amendment rights. In protest of "compulsory patriotism," on October 30th, Scott and three others burned flags on the steps of Capital Hill. Now officially a revolutionary artist, he was arrested. The resulting 
United States v. Eichman Supreme Court case favored the protection of “flag desecration” as freedom of expression.

Artist Faith Ringgold in a 2006 interview with
 F Newsmagazine asserted, "It would be impossible for me to picture the American flag just as a flag, as if that is the whole story. I need to communicate my relationship with this flag based on my experience as a black woman in America.” Likewise, Scott was unable to present the American flag as a symbol sans historical baggage. He felt an obligation to make a statement. And so he did.

By the age of 24, Scott garnered the attention of the U.S. President, had Senator Dole in a frenzy and provoked a Supreme Court case.

But he did not stop there. Fast-forward. Scott, now 46 and a father, continues to make charged work. His source material? Growing religious fundamentalism, a burgeoning prison population, cops killing unarmed men of color, never ending wars, and, of course, capitalism itself.

After six years of curious following from afar, I finally contacted Scott. Weeks later, I sat down with him at the Fort Greene Connecticut Muffin. Sporting a dread locked mohawk, bespectacled and in a blue argyle sweater, he sat across from me smiling. On the floor, he placed his blue reusable grocery sack which I'd later discover carried copies of the Communist Party paper. He spoke with a delicate intensity. Rihanna played in the background.

Scott was born to a middle class family in Chicago, a time as he notes where "being a middle class black kid was rare but not unusual." As a black, middle class kid attending an elite private school, he was supposed to become a doctor or lawyer, or something. An alternative route was clearly taken. Jokingly, he says, "I thought I was going to be a scientist and end up screwing up in high school ... ended up failing a class or two and couldn't get into elite schools, and so my parents said what do you want to do and I said, 'be a photographer.'" And so began his journey.

"Most artists need galleries and agents; you need lawyers," he said a friend once told him. The author of controversial works that mince no words in calling cops "killers" and performance art on the busy intersections of Wall Street, Scott has been subjected to death threats, arrests and countless court dates. But, the artist doesn't intend on slowing his pace or censoring his message. With a chuckle, he says, "I love a good fight," dubbing himself "one of the few artist in an America that has an ongoing relationship with the police."

His desire to engage with the politics through his art was borne from growing up in Ronald Reagan's America. "There was this lunatic in the White House threatening to destroy the world so that he can expand his empire ... if you can think about it, it was just insane."

However, it was not just Reagonomics -- unemployment, the purging of people from the rolls of entitlement programs and food stamps, or the escalation of the Cold War, or even the invasions of Grenada that angered him; rather, it was what he astutely observed as "people living in this mass delusion." From that point, he sought to create work that disrupted this mass delusion, work that as he hopefully asserts "confront[s] the world as it is and radically dream about how it could be different."

And he is trying to do just that. Things have changed since the 1980s. Just as spandex, flashes of neon, and over-sized sweaters are making an unpleasant return, so are some of the hallmarks of that decade. The United States is now engaged in three simultaneous wars, unemployment is at an all time high, there are over 2 million incarcerated Americans and homelessnesss is increasing. Scott has a wealth of tragedy to work with.

He has a penchant for re-purposing items.

His most recent work is 
Burning of the U.S. Constitution. A suite of three prints, it is a documentation of his burning of the U.S. constitution. Performed in February 2011, it was inspired by the recently released, but previously disappeared Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Ai Weiwei's 2010 performance piece Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn as Scott described, addressed, the "fetishization of the ancient things" and the way we make sense of sacred objects in the contemporary context. Likewise, in Burning of the U.S. Constitution, Scott, in a similar manner as What is the Proper Way to Display the American Flag? sought to call into question sacred national symbols of freedom.

Dressed in all black and standing against a brick wall, the three 26 x 20 inch C-Print photographs document three steps. Step 1, holding the constitution. Step 2, the constitution set aflame. Step 3, Scott standing upright, hands at his side, and stoic as the charred remnants of the constitution lie on the cement.
As he sees it, the constitution is an "exploiters view of freedom" but he acknowledges that "there are a lot of people who view it is the quintessence, the pinnacle of freedom." He challenges those who view it in the latter stating that "even while many things that would be called for by reading portions of the constitution -- the question of dissent and the right to dissent and the things that people claim that they like, people aren't doing nearly enough." 

One might say that Scott is carrying the load for everyone else.

In 1994, Scott worked with graffiti artist Joe Wippler on a collaborative piece installed inside the memorial Arch in Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn as part of a group exhibition called Trophies from the Civil War.

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the NY Post, the NYC police chief and a host of others heavily critiqued the piece. The controversy resulted in the NY State Council of the Arts withdrawing their funding for artist honoraria. Curtis Silwa, both radio personality and founder of the Guardian Angels (G.A.) who in 1992 was found to have fabricated the exploits of the G.A. in order to gain support, attempted to vandalize the piece on several occasions.

What sparked such a controversy? 

The installation included a mural featuring 9-foot-tall armed men in women. Written in the flames of their gun was “It took a civil war for black people to be changed from chattel slaves to wage slaves ... We must fight another civil war to end this system which enslaves the planet.” This was strike one.

On both sides of these gun flames were lit–Real Molotov cocktails made from 40 ounce Old English 800 beer bottles. This was strike two.

Finally, across the stairwell were life-size cop and National Guard uniforms that were stretched on headless mannequins, bleeding and dying. This was strike three.

As if they hadn't earned enough strikes, the visual elements were complemented by an audio element. A bullhorn affixed to the wall has a woman's voice announcing:
Sisters and brothers, we aren’t alone. Yesterday, comrades in Los Angeles, Chicago and DC launched an insurrection. Today, we control several other projects, ghettos, and neighborhoods in this city and the party has led armed uprisings in cities across the country. This is different from the riots and rebellions of the past year. This is a nationwide insurrection and for the first time in the history of this country, we have a real chance to go for power, to defeat their armed forces, to overthrow their government, and put the oppressed in power ... We are fighting for a world where no handful of ‘haves’ sits on top of us have-nots. No more whites oppressing other nationalities. No more men oppressing women ...

Scott said many mistakenly took this piece as his support for civil war despite his assertion that it was "explicitly not about that." "It was posing a question like any great art about the world is and what it could be," he continues.

Scott slows his speech. Then stops. He begins to speak again, "Revolution is not something that is played about lightly." "It is not something that a few isolated people go off and go. Being isolated from millions of people is actually doing great harm." More than anything he reminded us that "this artwork was posing the questions for people to think about. What revolutionaries in a country like this need to do, now, is raise people's political consciousness. Do work to help bring about a situation where people are more willing to fight for a radically different situation."

As the controversy from this 1994 piece died, Scott sparked another round of controversy in 2008. Unveiled three days into the 
Sean Bell trial, the MoCADA (the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Art) featured a 1999 piece called The Blue Wall of Violence. In it, Scott addressed police brutality through an installation piece focusing on objects police claimed were dangerous weapons when they shot an unarmed person.

Affixed to the wall are six FBI target sheets used for target practice with a protruding cast of an arm molded from his own arm. In each hand is an object claimed to be a dangerous weapons -- a wallet, house keys, 3 Musketeers bar, etc.
Hovering over each of the target sheets is are black signs with white print signaling the dates of these murders. The installation references several shootings such as the 1997 shooting of Andre Burgess, a 17-year-old, a college-bound senior and soccer captain who held a Musketeers candy bar when he was shot; the infamous 1999 case of Amadou Diallo who was holding a wallet when he was murdered; and the 1998 shooting of Antoinne Reid who was holding a squeegee when shot. The installation delivers a final combative note: a coffin laid in front of the target sheets. Three police batons powered by small motors strike the modest wooden coffin every 10 seconds.

Yet again, droves of detractors made their disapproval known. As the 
Village Voice reported back in 2008, a binder of commentary printed from media and police websites sat next to the installation. Some of my personal favorites:
"The Brooklyn 'Museum' should be blown off the face of the earth. It's the most liberal, anti-American, racist spot in the entire city."-- a user named NYPD Lieutenant, who claims to be a retired police sergeant from Brooklyn.

"Hope he gets shot by a low life black asshole, call the police, and have them do a half-ass job, better yet maybe he would die." -- a retired California deputy sheriff.

"I've always hated fucking Brooklyn! That museum would have been burnt down to the ground in Howard Beach, Queens and then afterwards everybody would have met up at the local Trattoria for Capicolla and Canolis!" -- tony6d2, who describes himself as a police officer in Florida.

The president of the NYC Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, Patrick Lynch went on record to say that "Taxpayer dollars certainly should not fund any art that promotes hate, and that's certainly what [Dread Scott's, Blue Wall of Violence] does." 

Not surprisingly, serious art critique was limited.

Having refused to fall into step with the imperatives of the art market, Scott's legacy is murky. He is talking about revolution -- and viscerally so, while others are doing more safe and palatable work. Art critics may want to be moved, but not moved into an intangible place of discomfort. He entered the art world as a renegade of sorts -- wearing a Kaffiyah and beret, burning the American flag on the steps of Capital Hill. Unbowed, he contended that "a significant amount of art that is written about and coveted is not about much of anything ... much of anything lofty." Other artists are "constrained by work which just doesn't speak to the significant questions that are confronting the world now" he continues. He refuses to be constrained. 

Political art is often branded as didactic and prescriptive. The occasional black sheep of the aging art world, critics have often dismissed political art for what is described as sacrificing basic aesthetics in the pursuit of the message itself. Artists walk a fine line between the overtly moralizing and dexterously subversive.

For Scott, newspapers, TV, and radio have sought out his work more often than art critics. In far too any cases,
ad hominem has supplanted any serious art critique of Scott's work. Some writers have focused more on his membership in the Revolutionary Communist Party than the materiality of his work.

Don't feel sorry for Scott; he is not without support. "There are some people who see work made about, say, the American flag or U.S. patriotism, or about police brutality are going to say, 'nah, you shouldn't critique America or call out cops for killing people,' but there are millions and millions of people that thank you for saying that, for saying our side of the story, but not even our side of the story -- but reality," announces Scott. Outside of Texas barrios and talk radio stations, Scott has a wide audience.

"I show everywhere from prestigious museums to street corners, with or without permission," he says jokingly. Most of Scott's work is exhibited and museums and he likes it this way. He wants the relatively progressive circles that attend exhibits to be thinking about this work. And just as much as he wants his art to be considered in these artistic communities, he also wants people who may not or cannot go to an exhibit to see his work. The world is his audience -- "In somewhat of a tautological way, I want to reach the audience for my work," Scott says with weighty conviction. He wants everyone seriously considering the ideas of revolution.

"I think there is a real capacity for revolutionary ideas to produce and inspire great art. I try to do that," he says, but he's not without moments of doubt. "Sometimes I succeed. Some of my great art is pretty good and poses questions for people then I've made work that doesn't succeed. There is a lot of unevenness," he admits.

Despite the ugliness he finds in the world or even the unevenness of his work to address certain issues, he speaks hopefully. "I just find the world the way it is intolerable ... it doesn't have to be this way..." he said, "and I want to do everything I can in my art [and] in my life to help humanity get to a different era."

Hopefully we can get to a new era -- an era free of oppression and exploitation.

The intensity of his cadence heightened when I asked about the responsibility of artists. Speaking firmly and hurriedly, he said, "artists have a responsibility to engage." Anyone who knows Scott knows his position on American politics, but he admits, in America, "it is relatively speaking freedom to dissent," laced with the challenge that "more people should take this opportunity." Without the air of pretension commonly seen with the clan of 'self-importants' in the art world, he finishes, "Given how morally bankrupt and unjust and exploitative this society is, there should be more rebels and outlaws. And I am proud to be one."

Before leaving to frame Hank Willis Thomas' work for the 
BAsics: A Celebration of Revolution and the Vision of a New World, he asked, "Do you believe in revolution?" I stuttered a bit, rambling about the logistics, timing and statistical success of past revolutions. He smiled and handed me a Communist Party newspaper, disappearing into the shallow streets of Fort Greene.

With a Communist Party newspaper in one hand and my recorder in the other, I was left with more questions than when the interview began. 

Deceased artist 
Felix Gonzalez-Torres once said "the most successful of all political moves are ones that don't appear to be 'political,'" begging the question of whether an artistic legacy is built on loud gestures or quiet maneuvers.


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